Sunday, 14 April 2013

Minimum Fun at Minimum Wage (Part 2):

"Boredom: (Adjective) an emotional state experienced by those who have been left without anything in particular to do, or have no interest in their surroundings."

Hmmm. Well well well welly welly well.

"Boredom"- maybe you feel that you can share an experience with me on this one; hold a candle next to mine in fellowship and say 'it's alright mate, I understand. I've been there. I know.' Maybe you believe you've held down an especially dull job at some point; perhaps one equal in terms of dullness to mine.  Maybe ... maybe.

Well, let me just alleviate you of that paradigm right fucking now: NO YOU HAVEN'T. Until you've worked in a factory environment, trust me on this one, you don't know what boring is. You might have tricked yourself into a passable impression of boredom at one time or another, but that holds about as much weight as a helium fart as far as I'm concerned. Your job was a birthday, Christmas, and VE Day rolled into one in comparison to my summer serfdom. Ten minutes in the biscuit factory and you'd pray to Christ almighty for an hour in San Quentin. You've scaled only the meanest foothills of the doldrums, thinking yourselves heroes of alpinism, while vast, Olympian heights of tedium tower further afield. For I alone among the ranks of mortal men have stared unblinking into the uttermost depths of abyss and survived, shaken and disturbed, to share my grim account with humanity ...  

(Waaaaaaaaah! WHAAAAAAAH!)
My point is that packing biscuit boxes wasn't very fun, alright? I might've exaggerated at teensy bit there. Anyway, moving on - let's not make a song and dance about it. Blimey.

So in the last post I mentioned the awful working hours, the dire pay, the long drive and the unpleasant smell; all legitimately unpleasant aspects of an unpleasant job. But each and every one of these minor issues pales before the unapologetic dreariness of the daily grind. Now some people cope well with monotony: they are skilled in and comforted by repetitive tasks, those labors which keep idle hands busy and the mind blissfully unburdened. I get it.

I know I must sound like the most disgusting snob to have ever drawn breath, but I'm honestly not trying to sound elitist when I tell you that, from the well of my soul, I AM NOT ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE. I'm easily distracted, I find focusing on uninteresting things insurmountably difficult, and I deal with stressful situations by running away from them and hiding until they magically diffuse themselves. None of those attributes are particularly savory to the prospective employer I'll grant you, but on the frantic factory floor it makes you as valuable as a paraplegic ballerina.

(You can forget about Mariinsky theatre Natalie!) 

Of course, in the grand tradition of the sadistic farce I like to call 'My Life' I didn't realize this until it was too late. Apparently my brain is like a petulant spoiled child; if it isn't being amused or diverted it throws a tantrum. Repetitive tasks do not a happy Hendo make. As a result, my new job soon felt like one of the more ironic hells that Dante kept in reserve for particularly loathsome sinners.

I worked chiefly in packaging: which is exactly the sum total of what the word entails. I constructed boxes by folding flat-packed cardboard, standing up, eight hours a day, five days a week. Let me break the process down for you:

1: Quickly pick up cardboard from the seven-foot-tall mountain on your right, making doubly sure to have it facing the right way up.

2: Fold cardboard into cuboid shape, using instructions provided, with the bottom of the newly-engineered box resting against the small desk in front of you.

(Note: failure to rest the bottom of a newly-engineered box against a small desk will leave the incoming biscuits unsupported, with the entirety of your product spilling onto the floor, leaving you looking like a dopey preschool twat. The more you know!) 

3: Nab eight biscuit packets from the conveyor belt to your left. 

4: Neatly stack biscuit packets in the newly-engineered box, in a pair of four. Again, all facing exactly the correct way.

(Note: for the love of Cthulhu and all his spawn you'd better have your biscuits stacked the correct way, because if you don't it will be literally impossible for humanity to ever contemplate enjoying a biscuit again. Shoddy stacking will irrevocably sully the experience for everyone forever. Society itself will collapse into anarchy if those biscuits aren't stacked like the bricks of the fucking Parthenon, you'd better believe it.)

5: Place box back on assembly line to be sellotaped shut.

6: Do all of this, like a robot, in less than ten seconds. 

7: Lose the will to live.

8: Contemplate the pros and cons of a shooting spree

9: Repeat ad nauseam, until the sweet release of death.

Not exactly spellbinding is it? Not unless we're referring to the Cruciatus Curse of course; then you're hitting the nail right on the head. Into the victim's eye socket. It was the apotheosis of monotony. The only way this would be an engaging vocation would be if I'd been born in a basement, and had spent the last 20 years in total darkness, eating flies.   

(Boxes: fascinating shit, yeah?)
 But I wasn't simply given a forklift's worth of raw materials to casually assemble at my leisure. Hell no! We're not playing with K'nex here kids; this is mass-production. If you miss even one box, you're buggered. See you don't have time to pick up the slack and fix that last one, because another is already on the way and you're out of rhythm as it is. So you decide to leave that half-finished bastard for now. But later: oops! Butterfingers! You've missed another. Now you've got a steadily-collecting pile on your hands. Miss a third and you might as well go the whole hog and just start sabotaging equipment and pissing into the mixture, because shit has just gone critical. Now everyone will fucking despise you and some other more competent individual will have to be dragged away from whatever he/she was doing to deal with your metashambles. Now you have no choice but to slink away, humiliated and ashamed, to find a job even less menial than biscuit packing. Maybe licking toilet seats clean, or waxing your manager's car with your bare arse. Odds are that's the only way you'll stay on the payroll.

(Come on, get licking)
You see, the assembly line is as relentless as age: a sprawling, gargantuan monster, messily devouring ton after ton of fresh oats, digesting them in the roasting, churning furnace of its belly, only to shit it all over you later on. Working with it is like nursing a beached whale. A beast with a hunger that never ends, with needs that will never be sated, moaning and wheezing for your undivided attention. Sore back? Stiff arms? No sleep? Tough. Fucking. Tomalley. The beast doesn't rest. The beast doesn't care. It needs attending to. It need attending to. It needs attending to. It needs attending to. It needs attending to. It need attending to. IT NEED ATTENDING TO!!!! AHAHAHAHAHAAAA!!! ABIDING SYNTAX CAN'T ANSWER THE PHONE RIGHT NOW PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE WITH THIS DUCK, AND I'LL PURLOIN YOUR CORNSTARCH KIDNEYS POSTHASTE-

... Ahem.

As you can see, after a fortnight of all this, I genuinely started to go a bit mental. I conducted my various duties in a slack-jawed, zombie-like stupor, perceiving the farcical tableau as though through smeared lens, or dense fog. Instructions barked at me were muted to inaudibility. At times it felt like my feet had lifted off the ground and the world had dropped away from me. Gradually, inevitably, I retreated inside myself to escape it all. At one point in the midst of my industry, my routine became so repetitive, that I experienced the epiphany that each individual moment of my life was now utterly indistinguishable from those proceeding and following it. It was an almost perfect display of recursion. Locked in the ever-shrinking cage of my own brain, I realised that, since physicists tend to define the passage of time as being dependent on the movement or transfer of energy, or a change in the state of matter, I conjectured that since each of the various reactions and operations surrounding me, observable or not, were identical; I had essentially entered a state of mind in which the clocks had stopped, the hands frozen, the gears ground to a halt. Inside my own skull I held time suspended.

It was times like those when I sincerely considered whether amateur lobotomy would make my new-found career more bearable. In any case, it might've been comparatively less painful.
(Pictured: the only escape)
My initial accidents and screw-ups were met with a sort of cheerful tolerance, later: weary resignation, and in due course: barely disguised irritation. I could sense the foreman's glare through the walls from several rooms away as I ineffectually dithered about. By the end of my brief tenure: I absolutely fucking despised that guy. There are very few people whom I can say I hate without compunction; but after two weeks of that bastard breathing down my neck, by golly he made the list. That put him, in terms of my estimation of his character, alongside my ex-girlfriend and Alan Carr. Make of that what you will.

(Irritation personified if you ask me)
My co-workers were a strange and unsettling bunch of misfits it must be said; hardly conducive to an atmosphere of solidarity. Most of them were Polish or Latvian for a start, and their English was less than conversational. The remainder could be neatly filed into the broken, missing or useless section of society; of which I now consider myself an honorary member. There was a sixteen year old with more boils than skin, a middle-aged mother of five who talked to herself under her breath as she worked, and stocky, scowling Greek who seemed to have made it his mission in life to pull me aside every fifteen minutes to explain the dumbfoundingly obvious, among others.

Most insane of all was Gordon; a 6 ft 2 man of perhaps fifty, who also happened to be a sufferer of Tourettes Syndrome. And I'm not talking the oh-so-comical TV Tourettes either; I'm talking about the Tourettes with the tics, jitters, stutters and spasms to boot. He was like a half-rusted clockwork toy, sprung jerkily into a shambling parody of animation. His motion wasn't so much a stride as a series of sudden falls indefinitely postponed. He marched from A to B and back again like something out of the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, always on edge and unsettled. He had this strange compulsion to keep himself moving at all times, like a shark or something.
(He was nothing like this, really)
Despite my pity, he was a headache to be around. Simple tasks became Herculean. His palsy made making tea excruciating. The rest of us would be reading the paper, texting, perhaps staring thoughtfully out of the window as if engaged in some unfathomable act of cognition. A complete pantomime of course; we were all painfully aware of Gordon's presence and knew that catastrophe was sure to befall him at any moment. After the long process of dribbling milk into his cup, and shaking out half a packet of granulated sugar, Gordon would then attempt to proceed to his seat at the table without incident. At this point all pretense at nonchalance had been dropped like a hot potato: we were now all on tenderhooks, watching the poor sod shuffle along at a snails pace. Gordon would tense up every muscle in his body to keep the tremors under control. The whole room would be livid with anticipation, and once he was over the halfway mark, there would come a mad, desperate moment wherein we all deluded ourselves into believing that he might actually make it. But, or course, at that very moment a shaking fit would overtake him and he would shower us with a torrential downpour of scalding tea. You had to be quick to use a magazine or a tea-towel as a shield, otherwise there were some third-degree-burns in your future. Of course, being drenched in hot tea would mean that we all had to (Say it with me now) strip of our lab-coats, bin them, and put on new ones. There would be apologies from Gordon, but he'd be so flustered that all we got was stuttering. It was quite sad really.  

(Picture this, on a Hurricane Katrina scale)
From up here on my high-horse (a perch I seem to find myself on rather often admittedly), it's easy to make fun of Gordon, with these snide anecdotes. But even he, for all his shortcomings and handicaps, was capable of doing his fucking job. Lest we forget, I was not so competent. There was a chap I worked with called Iain, and I'm not trying to sound like a bigot here, but he was retarded. Slow. Mentally deficient. I felt sorry for the guy, because some of the other workers would take the piss and wind him up. Not to the point of open cruelty, just needling, annoying him by asking questions he couldn't know the answers to. A twelve-year-old could've outwitted him, so a bored adult could run rings around the guy. Every day he would bring in the same lunch into work in the same old lunchbox, (cold ham roll, orange, Babybell cheese, Capri-Sun) the sleeves of his shirt stained with snot from where he'd wiped his runny nose. He was an overweight, dribbling mouth-breather. When he was confused, which was often when he elected to talk back to his tormentors, he glitched, and fell back on repeating the last thing said to him over and over again, this endless broken-record loop that lost all meaning until he hesitated, blinked, and recovered.
("Yup, it's a box alright.")
Iain was not handsome, or charming, or clever. But he was a wizard when it came to packaging. He would fold, stack dump with effortless grace. It was like a dance; there was a practiced rhythm to his movements. No-one else could do that job so well and for so long without a single complaint. I'm not trying to patronize the man with that comment, really I'm not. I wish I could tell you that Iain was secretly an idiot savant with a master talent for watercolors or the trombone: but he wasn't. He was dull-witted bloke doing a boring job for bad pay. But in a way I admire him. I remember watching him while he worked, gobsmacked, envious of his skill. I could'nae hack it and Iain could. It's simple as that. So disabled or not, on the factory floor that made him more valuable than me.

(Shit man, in the factory the bucket and mop were more valuable than me)
So there came the day when my manager called me into his office, and asked me how I felt I was getting on. I replied with the supreme understatement that I didn't think I was getting on so well. he agreed. To his credit the man didn't mince words. He told me that my abilities, whatever they were, clearly weren't suited to this environment, and concurrently I was to be taken off the payroll. I shook his hand, stripped and binned for the last time, and walked out the door. Humiliated and upset, I went for lunch and phoned my then-girlfriend, who was in Estonia at the time, expecting reassurance and understanding. I received only laughter and mild disinterest. I came home, broke the news to my folks, and walked the dogs. I think we can all agree life was all uphill from there.

(Always sympathetic ... unless there's bacon on the go)
As much as I joke about my experience, I know that I was only ever a tourist in hell; sampling the food, the big sights, the cosy cafes, but never really taking up permanent lodgings. Maybe I'm destined for bigger and better things, maybe not, but for some people that factory, that job, is their lives. It's what they get up in the morning for, it's where they work and struggle and labor for peanuts. Eight hours a day. Five days a week. Just to earn a bed and satellite telly. All for the few hours of real life they're left to squeeze in-between shifts. It's sad. Not all of us can live that dream of carefree affluence, of security, satisfaction and leisure. I think about the people I met who are still working that thankless job for minimum wage, and I'm damned grateful. I am. I think we all have to make the choice to do a really shitty job at least once in life, if only for the motivation to never end up having no choice at all ...

(This week I've been reading Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility.' It was alright. Didn't like it as much as 'Pride and Prejudice'. Not as witty. Protagonist's were less interesting ... What? Christ I've been revising this thing for days people! I've said everything I want to say in past-papers! Give me a break already! Jeez.) 

(On an unrelated note, check the cleavage on Marianne there. Crickey!)

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Minimum Fun At Minimum Wage (Part 1):

Minimum wage; it's not a payroll for the haughty is it? You kinda sag inside like a burst sofa just contemplating it.  When I tell people that I'm earning that salary, it feels like admitting to an erectile dysfunction. It's like:

"Hey Callum, not seen you in while man! What you been up to?"

"Ah, you know, Uni. I'm working."

"Cool, how much do you earn?"

"Uh, minimum wage."


"Yeah. Minimum wage. The least amount of money I could legally be paid. I couldn't earn less if I tried. Yup. I mean, my boss would like to pay me less, by Christ he would, but there are laws stopping him. Otherwise I'd have the same salary as Bob Cratchitt. Sooooo all those years of education I've been through, are apparently completely wasted on me, because I'm now employed to perform a task that could be better accomplished by a ring-tailed macaque for a weekly paycheck that buys me a Pot Noodle in this economy. Until I have to pay tax. Top-banana."

(Would you like some self-respect with that?)
But there's minimum-wage and then there's minimum-wage. Some jobs are thankless and dull, but endurable despite it all. You expect nothing good from them, and you're never disappointed. You develop a camaraderie with your co-workers over how shit things are. You learn how to skive-off and forecast your managers moods. Eventually, with practice, it becomes just another round in the game of life.

Then there's the other kind; the kind of job that leaves you with PTSD after your first shift, the kind of job that reduces you to a gaunt, hollow-cheeked husk after a week. The kind of job that kills you, buries you in a shallow grave by a roadside dyke, then after sixty-hundred-and-sixty-six months uses the arcane arts of necromancy to reanimate you and put you back on the payroll.

(Working hard or hardly wor-ARRGHGHGHCKH!)
This was the type of job I got myself fired from. I'm still pretty steamed about it. You can't tell, can you?

In the June of '12, my dearest mother gave me a phone call to announce, with audible pride, that she'd secured my summer employment. She'd been drinking with people at the local highland games, exchanging news and gossip, and had managed to convince a friend's husband to give me a job in his biscuit factory. Interested was I. Naive was I. Unbroken was I.

You know, I was actually pretty stoked for it. I'd been unemployed over the last summer and it had not sat well with me. Plus the prospect of filling out applications and printing CV's and sending e-mails and the endless, endless rejection was too arduous to even consider. It was a job right? Money in my pocket: I didn't give a soggy shite how I got my hands on it, just as long as the labour was mindless, the pay regular and I could piss-off home before 5pm. It was a biscuit factory man, how hard could it be? I wasn't being sent down a mine-shaft, I'd be boxing oatcakes, Easy cash, right?

(The horror! OH THE HUMANITY!)
Wrong. In fact, I couldn't have been more wrong, not even if I had a PHD in cocking-up from the University of Gimboid.

For a start, I was informed that my shifts lasted from 6am to 3pm, every weekday. Since the factory was in Niddrie and I live in Bathgate, this meant that every morning started with a 40 minute drive. To get to work on time I had to climb out of my bed at 5am. Dear readers, 5am is not something that regularly happens to me. I have never been, of my own free will, fully conscious at this hour. I never had any desire to experience 5am. 5am is a phenomenon for those of us who have never had the good fortune to have heard of half twelve.
(Not pictured: me awake at this ungodly hour)
There's our first mark on the tally of shittiness: 5am start. So I was a bit miffed about the hours, but so what? I'm the employee here, I thought, I can't presume to dictate my shift pattern; that's arrogance. Let's actually work a day before we start with the whining, aw'right?

So Monday morning I pitched up at the gates, 5.55 sharp, signed all the appropriate forms and donned my work clothes. When dealing with food; I don't have to tell you guys how important sanitation and hygiene was to the business ... but fuck it, I'll tell you anyway. All employees had to adhere to a strict dress-code. We were required to wear a hairnet at all times for a start, and that was fucking humiliating. And I didn't get a baseball cap hiding it like the kids in Subway. Nah, I was constantly aware of how much of a twat I looked; and I looked like a monumental twat. I could actually feel my stifling twatishness and it was suffocating. I felt like a sideshow attraction.  

(And I looked like this. Seriously)
Then there were these rubber soles that we had to pull over our boot-heels, for some tenebrous reason which continues to escape me to this day. The piercing squeak they made when rubbed against linoleum was excruciating, and it soon came to be the bane of my senses. My skin would crawl and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in anticipation of it, it was so horrible. They were of the one-size-doesn't-quite-fit-anybody variety, and a bitch to pull on. Even harder to take off, come to think of it: I once went home with them still attached because anything shy of a crowbar would not have budged 'em.

(The engineer's shoehorn)
We also had to wear these disposable labcoats, which seemed to be made out of wood-pulp and tissue paper as far as I could discern. They could be torn by a butterfly's eyelash and they practically dissolved in water. You had to strip everything off and throw it in the bin every single time you left the factory floor. Every time you had a break, took out the bins, went to the toilet, masturbated, murdered a co-worker, whatever, you had to strip off, bin your clothes, and put on new stuff. It doesn't sound so bad does it? But believe me, after you've done this approximately eight times a day, it starts to wear you down.

So, properly attired, I was ready (not really) to commence my imminent carousel-ride through all seven circles of Hell. The next fortnight was as traumatic as watching your girlfriend have an affair with your Alsatian.  

(Adultery's a sin Rover)
Can I say before I begin my account; this job was not in any way complicated. I had few responsibilities, and it wasn't like any mistakes I made lost the business thousands, or put other careers in jeopardy. Yet I still managed to get myself fired without pouring anthrax into the vats or committing embezzlement. It took a staggering degree of stupidity, but I managed it.

So I was a factory worker; not a position I was proud of by any stretch of the imagination, but I was also a new guy with no previous experience, which put me roughly just below yeast in the factory food-chain. I was everybody's bitch, and for good reason: I never had a clue what I was doing. Usually I had a lot of janitorial work to do, because by and large it was the one type of work that I could do without ruining everything. This meant a lot of sweeping, which was good, because usually when you're sweeping people leave you alone. It's such a dull, pointless lowbrow task that supervisors usually pay it no heed. Often, they wouldn't notice that I'd been meticulously sweeping the same four feet for twenty minutes, which left me free to daydream. If any of you guys suffer the misfortune to become janitors, I've got one piece of advice for you: learn to mop in your sleep. It will make your life immeasurably easier.

(These are life skills I'm teaching you guys)
But that was the nicey-nicey stuff. I also had to wheel this wire-frame trolley about the place, just in this perpetual circuit, picking up litter and dragging it out to the recycling dumpster outside. Well I say dumpster, really it was this huge steel shipping container that was stacked fit to burst with cardboard and paper and zip-tags. 

I also had the ignomious job of collecting the waste biscuits in these large cylindrical plastic bins, and dumping them in an entirely separate shipping container. This was by far the most repugnant of my various duties, and the one I loathed the most. For a start, those bins were heavy. You might not think that oatcakes are the weightiest of foodstuffs, but once those bins were full they became as dense as a collapsing star. Also, I had this job before I started taking regular exercise and weight-training seriously, so my soft wee noodle arms would struggle to lift even one more than ten feet without my having an asthma attack. The only choice you had if you wanted to avoid picking up fifty metric tonnes was to jog around the factory floor, taking out the bins before they got too full. Anything filled more than halfway was exhausting to shift, so you had to be quick, but often the effort of keeping up with the pace of the machinery was more knackering than just heaving the bloody things out when they were full.

(Don't look at me like that, lifting things is hard)
 The recycled biscuits were to be shipped off to feed swine, which meant they needed to at least be edible. That meant that on more than one occasion, I had to climb into this dank, rusted shipping container to clear out the rodents that were nesting in the waste product. I'd have to wade through sodden, moldy biscuits, stabbing mice out of the oaten heaps with the end of my broom, wincing as they scurried past my shins in their droves. I was like the pied piper if he'd fallen on hard times in the recession. I mean, have any of you ever had to endure the rank stench of mountains of soggy biscuits mouldering away in the darkness? In a cramped, confined space, juxtaposed with the biting odor of rat droppings? That experience will change you. After a while, the smell just settles into your lungs and stays there for good. I started to sweat biscuit and cough up crumbs. It bleached my eyebrows white. The smell of hyacinths, a lovers perfume, cinnamon, coffee, cloves, garlic, mint and rosemary; these scents are all lost to me now. The factory was overall extremely clean, and we had the vermin situation under control, but I personally had a plague to deal with. I felt positively bubonic by the end of each shift. That shipping container became my Room 101.   
(How do those rat turds taste Babe?)
But the fun didn't stop there folks! We're only on the tip of this horse-manure iceberg, and things only got progressively worse ... 


(This week I've been reading the famous satirical mock-epic 'The Rape of the Lock' by Alexander Pope, which is; shock and horror, actually pretty funny. Imagine that! People in ye olden days had senses of humor! In all seriousness if you haven't read it yourself, then give it a look, particularly if your a classics student with a firm knowledge of 'The Iliad' or 'The Aeneid' - I'm looking at you Rachel - although I still haven't read either myself ... Whoops. There goes my carefully cultivated facade of literacy ...)

(Alexander Pope: A Pretty Cool Guy)

Monday, 11 February 2013

Fears Before Bedtime:

Looking back, I think the thing that colored the texture of my childhood most prominently was fear. Not the big grandiose phobias of adulthood, like death, disease, poverty and aging, but a stinging cloud of tiny irrational worries that needled me long into adolescence. The funny thing was that almost all of these anxieties were self-inflicted, the enfants terrible of overactive imagination, born of ignorance, confusion and speculation. 

To understand what I’m talking about, you have to appreciate that the world a child perceives and occupies is utterly different to the grown-up universe. Parents dictate bizarre social conventions that you suspect are simply made up on the spot. You can eat certain foods with your hands but not others. Mum insists that you tidy your toys away, even though this means that you’ll no longer remember where they are. Certain people are fat or short or ugly, and yet you’re forbidden from discussing these facts within earshot of them. It’s not polite to pick your nose and flick bogies away, but it is polite to blow all the snot onto a piece of tissue-paper, fold it and put it in your pocket. You can’t ever talk to strangers, yet by the same token your parents admonish you for not making friends when all the possible candidates for companionship happen to be strangers. You have to go to bed early even though mummy stays up late. You can’t whisper a swearword even though daddy shouts them when he watches football. It goes on and on and on.

Not only this, but simple physical laws do not exist in childhood. There’s no such thing as physics or chemistry when you’re five-years-old. There’s no such thing as God either. Think about that for a second. Everything, from the dishwasher to the lightbulb, is an incomprehensible miracle. This is why kids make the best scientists; they systematically question everything around them, right down to the most minute detail. Contentment with ignorance is a form of learned helplessness that only adults suffer. Children are never satisfied, and their inquiries are constant:

“Why does the sun come out in the day instead of at nighttime when the light would be more useful?”

“How do I know air exists when I can’t see it? What if breathing is just a bad habit I can quit anytime I want?”

“What’s the difference between dead people and asleep people? What if dead people have just been asleep a really long time and when they wake up we’ll have locked them in boxes and buried them in the ground?”

“For that matter, what happens when we run out of space in the ground to bury dead people in? Will we have to fire them into outer space or what?”

“What’s to stop liquid from not assuming the shape of its container. It can be any shape it wants, why should the container decide for it?”

“How can trees be alive when they don’t move, eat or go to the toilet?”

“How can the earth be spinning around the sun without me ever getting dizzy?”

“How can the earth be smaller than the sun when the sun in the sky looks like it’s the same size as a penny?”
“Why did it take people in the olden days so long to invent cars and computers?”

“If dragons and fairies don’t exist, why does everyone know what they look like?”

“How can girls be the same animal as boys when they have longer hair and different private parts?

Seems ridiculous right? Well ... yeah, maybe it is. But I asked questions like this every hour of every day, and now it seems insane to imagine a time in my life without the answers. So I filled in the gaps in my knowledge by scaring myself to death. For me the world was a huge and horrifying place that might contain any number of grim and haunting phenomena. I invented nightmarish scenarios to occupy my imagination. A few examples of the kind of lunacy I'm talking about:

-I had this fantasy where gravity would just stop working one day for no reason, and we would all float off into the blue, falling away from the earth forever and ever and ever like untethered balloons.

-I used to worry that my friends and family were impostors that only pretended to care about me. I had this idea that if I were to leaf through my parents bank statements or tax forms, I’d find evidence that they were spies or androids or something,  sizing me up for experimentation or torture.

-I was seriously unnerved by the idea that God could see everything I was doing, because it meant that not one moment of my life would ever be unobserved: sometimes when I was on the toilet I would put a bath-towel over my head just so I could void my bowels in peace.  

-I worried that other people couldn’t see the same colors as I could, or even the same shapes. After all, we only have our own senses to rely on right? How did I know that my idea of what an apple or a pencil is the same as other peoples? What if the universe was so terrible and alien, that we’d all, since the dawn of history, invented our own individual worlds in the privacy of our own skulls and pretended that we agreed on what it looked and smelled and sounded like?

-Sometimes in the restless predawn witching hours, when I was lying in bed, a car would rush past my bedroom window, throwing a slim pendulum of light across my ceiling from its headlamps. The whisper of tyres on the road always made a sound like an angel breathing my name in my ear. Whenever this happened I’d curl into a ball and bury my face into my pillows, whining like a dog for the sake of invisible monsters.

-I was paranoid that when I turned off my television, the characters on the screen would die instantly. To me, every time you changed the channel you caused a miniature apocalypse. If you switched off after an episode was over, you averted the catastrophe for the time being, but any other time made you a murderer.

-If I had to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, I’d always throw a toy or a pillow on the floor first, so the anomalous grotesque creatures that lived under the bed would get to that first.

-I regarded the film ‘Toy Story’, as a documentary, and as such was terrified that if I broke any of my own sentient plastic friends, I’d leave them irreparably deformed and crippled, trapped in agony and unable to die.

-I hated the sound of static, the dial tone on the end of telephones, the screech of glitching computer programs or the groaning of faulty VHS tapes. I always imagined that these were the sounds of machines screaming in pain.

-I was horrified to learn that everyone had organs inside them, long ropey entrails, slimy guts, whatever, because it meant that even the most beautiful people had disgusting stuff inside wound up inside them, all secret and repulsive underneath the skin. I became depressed after studying the digestive system because it meant that I couldn’t love every part of the girls I fancied.

-I was afraid of dark places, shadows and eclipses. I hated the sight of dead jellyfish, the spastic flutterings of daddy longlegs.

-I was scared of falling into a parallel dimension, like wonderland or Bizarro world.

-I didn’t like cracked windows, eyeballs, and human skin.

As I’ve grown I’ve shed these petty phobias, yet I don’t think this means I’m free of anxiety. On the contrary I think I’m simply better at hiding my own madness. The irrational horrors have been buried within the psyche or simply forgotten, while others matured and gestated, to become the many anxieties I live with today. As a grown-man I’m afraid of non-existence, of pain and depression and despair. I’m afraid of my friends leaving me or losing interest in my or betraying me. I’m afraid of not being funny or interesting or attractive enough for other people. I’m afraid of wasting my life or squandering opportunities. I’m afraid of my family and friends dying, or becoming sick or insane or disabled. I’m afraid of disappointing people, I’m afraid of failure, I’m afraid of rejection. I’m afraid I’m ugly, boring, pretentious and lazy. I’m afraid of loneliness, of being single for the rest of my life, of never becoming a great writer, of being poor or unfulfilled or unhappy. I’m afraid I might never get over my ex girlfriend, and find the strength to accept the way she ended things without it tarnishing the good memories. I’m afraid I might be so afraid of losing my next job that I’ll never get another one. I’m afraid of losing reasons to continue living, of the inherent selfishness, cruelty and malice of nature, of the indifference of the world to me and the meaninglessness of reality.

In fact, I have so many fears these days that it’s just impossible for me to find the time to be scared of all the other stuff, clowns and spiders and sharks and whatnot. I’m glad I’m not carrying the nightmares of childhood around with me anymore, and I’m proud to have replaced them with an adult’s. I don’t think the world ever stops being huge and frightening and inexplicable, I think we simply adapt ourselves to be afraid of what’s relevant, and reject what is not. There’s still a lot keeping me awake at night, staring into the darkness within and without, but at least those horrors can be shared. At least we don’t carry them alone.

What were you guys afraid of as kids? Did anything weird creep you out, and if so, have you outgrown that fear or is it still with you? As always, feel free to tell me about it, as I'm always interested in this kind of personal stuff. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Performance Time!

Since you guys seemed to respond to my last little video so well, (apart from my incessant chatter: sorry about that - I get nervous while being filmed and tend to babble a lot of the time :/ ) I thought I'd make another to let you guys spy on me practicing another piece for next week. It'll be like 'VIOLIN LIVE!' or reality T.V. or whatever. Hopefully your disgusting voyeurism will mean you'll overlook any mistakes I might make. (Perish the thought!)

As these videos go on there may be even more distractions. I might perform shirtless in a hailstorm while a vicious horde of demented chimps parade in the background with party poppers and confetti. Anything to please my dearest audience :)

As always your comments are noted and very much appreciated. Why don't you let me know what you thought of it? Do you think I've improved at all? :) 

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Violin: (Part the Last)

When last we left our intrepid protagonist he was poised on the threshold of a bad 'Carry-On' film, trapped in the abode of an voluptuous violinist for sixty minutes a week with no barriers whatsoever between him and an vicious montage of sexual frustration and faux-pas. What lurid misadventures will our terminally-needy-narrator encounter?  With a set-up like this, who knows what zany shenanigans and wacky antics are about to occur? So tell us 'Tears Before Bedtime', what happened next?

Well, in short: nothing really.

(See, that was a rhetorical device I just used. I got you all excited with the big sexy cliffhanger at conclusion of the last episode, left you a fortnight to imagine all kinds of bawdy hijinks and then comically subverted your expectations by describing the reality in an anticlimactic manner. Writing: it's all about the craft.)

(You just got served)
 Yeah. Even though my teacher is a very attractive young lady, I've gotta be honest, after a couple of lessons her looks completely failed to be a big deal. Apparently I'm not all id: good to know. Only 96% of all my decisions are guided by a pressing need to have my end away, as opposed to the full 100%. Positivity!

It's pretty hard to have squishy-feelings when you're concentrating as hard as you possibly can to play seven little bars to the best of your ability. Unless I'm in a hypnotic trance, chances are that I'll fuck it up. This doesn't give me much room for fantasies or erections; being the dirty-minded, desperate bugger I usually am. I'm paying a lot for these lessons, and I can be filthy-minded in my spare time for free. 

With this in mind, you'd think that the learning process would be all hunky-dory from that point on wouldn't you? Well you'd be wrong. My teacher wasn't a problem, but EVERYTHING ELSE was.

(Violin: serious business for ugly virgins)
 Let me elaborate. I'm a pretty bright guy. I'm never gonna be in MENSA or anything like that, but I'm clever. I can also be the most moronic, knuckle-dragging, pants-on-head-stupid troglodyte to ever draw breath when it comes to motor skills and co-ordination. I wasn't aware of this particular flaw in my character until I started playing violin. It's fun to discover new things about yourself. I've discovered that I'm retarded.

Before you judge, hear me out. For all of you smug bastards out there with the good fortune to actually possess some self-confidence, let me just dispel that cute delusion you have about your own aptitude with a little exercise. After you've finished doing something you're proud of: a two-hour gym session, a lab-report, a shift at work, whatever it is that makes you proud, just go an pick up an unfamiliar instrument.
(No, not that one, pick again)

Go for that cello over there. Yeah, there you go pal. Right. Now play something. Don't worry, I'll give you time. Alright? 1...2...3 ...4


HA! AWFUL! FUCKING AWFUL! Put that down before you hurt yourself you clod! You don't know what you're doing do you? You cretinous fucking wazzock. Are your fingers stiff? Does you neck hurt? Yeah, you bet it does. You're feeling pretty slow right now, huh? This isn't advanced biochemistry or army-training or amateur bomb-disposal bitch! THIS IS STRINGS WE'RE TALKING ABOUT! AND IT'S HARDER THAN A METRIC TON OF DIAMOND! IF YOU CAN'T STAND THE HEAT GET OUT OF THE OVEN! PUSSY!

This litany of abuse echoes through the inside of my skull every time I fail to play 'Little Brown Jug' with any competence. I am my own drill-sargeant. This is my violin. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.  

 If you don't know how lazy your own brain is, try learning something new. It's a sobering experience, and afterwords you'll feel like going back to kindergarten and starting afresh. My grade 1 textbook is for children. I mean, there's no getting away from it, there are pictures of kids from the nineties with appalling haircuts on the cover, and wee cartoons in the margins. My pet-hate is being patronized, but there's nothing quite as patronizing as having to count crotchets for the millionth successive time. 

I often need to listen to the music I play on YouTube to get a feel for what each piece should sound like. I'm not kidding, virtually every video features a nauseatingly sweet five-year-old fiddling away, a beatific expression adorning their rosy countenance, with umpteen-hundred comments complimenting the little prodigy. These kids don't even know what they're playing, and neither do they care. It's all operant conditioning by this point. They just want to finish the next phrase so they can be rewarded with McDonalds and watch Cartoon Network.

(And who wouldn't after all?)
Meanwhile I, 20 years old, labor over each tune for hours, screeching and scraping away, struggling to keep my posture poised, my tuning perfect, the rhythm sublime, and paradoxically the music will sound progressively worse as practice drags on.

It's frustrating, but you can't be frustrated because it's frustration you've brought upon yourself. It's not an act of god to find yourself trying to get this lump of wood and horsehair to make a gorgeous sound, it was your choice. But that doesn't make it any easier.
(So calm right now)
There is so much to remember, so many niggling little things to pay attention to that, if left unheeded, add up to a cacophonous din. The violin has to be held under the chin at exactly the right angle, with the thumb of your left hand just touching the end of the fingerboard where the pegs are, you have to bow gently as you move away from the bridge, and hard as you move towards it. 


You have to press your fingers down at exactly the right positions on the strings as you play, which is bloody sore before they've had a chance to callus, not too sharp and not too flat, and you have to bow without swinging from your shoulder and some pieces have you start on an up-bow and others from a down-bow and if you don't remember which is which then you'll get muddled as you go along. 


And then there's some notes which are three beats, and one-and-a-half beats, which I can't even count in my head that well, and there's dynamics to take into account and you have to keep your wrist slack and your fingers curled, and remember to read ahead so you know what's coming next, and don't even get me started on slurring and eventually all this information is pureed into a nebulous hybrid of arbitrary rules and notations and your teacher's all like; "you just played this right, how can you not get it now?", which doesn't feel fair because she was probably on grade 3 when she was in the womb, and it feels like your cerebellum is melting and BLASTED FURNACES OF HELL WHY CAN'T THIS BLOODY THING JUST MAKE THE NICE NOISE - ARHJQSLSNEDBWHPI!@£*&£^TGDR£-!!!


So yeah, maybe the learning curve is so steep it's almost vertical. Maybe it's difficult to hold your violin steady when there's a cat in the room making you sneeze. Maybe sometimes it's like the relationship between you and the instrument is all-give and no-take. Maybe beauty is frustrating and hard and the exhausting struggle to attain it'll put you in a shitty mood most of the time.  

(Yeah, fuck you violin! See you in hell mate!)
But it's worth it. It feels good to make progress with something, even if it's only baby steps. Because we all need little victories in our lives. The world can be harsh and cruel and unsympathetic, so we have to make plans for ourselves. We invent obstacles to overcome to feel better about the ones we can't. Chaos governs so much of our destiny that those rare moments of power and control raise us to godhood. It's a natural human inclination; like Robinson Crusoe we make the best out of what we've been given. From the lumber of forests we build shelter, and reap fuel. From the earth and rainwater we grow and harvest food. And from out of silence we make music, from the dissonant discord we impose melodious order.

(I have no idea what he's supposed to be wearing here)
 I'm glad I found the courage to actually make a positive change in my life instead of whining and bitching about it. I'm usually too insecure or lazy to bother making progress. And learning a new skill changes you, so gradually you don't even notice, and if you make enough of them you end up a whole new being, separate and distinct from the person you loathed before. 

Think about it. What have you wanted to do but never got round to? What's on your bucket list that you could start today? Go on a trip, or learn a new language? Cooking, driving, shit I dunno, skydiving and gator-wrestling, there's gotta be something you want. I don't wanna get all preachy and life-coach on you, but it really is your choice. There's nothing holding you back but time, money and effort. Tell me about it; what is it that you want to learn?

I'm not a good violinist yet, not by a long shot. In fact in the last four months I've only really progressed from 'awful' to 'just-bad'. But that's okay, because all things strive. Even Mozart had to put in those 10, 000 hours somewhere down the line. There can be some dignity in failure, and the most important thing isn't that I'm practicing now, but that I'll still be practicing in ten years time, and with you guys with me that journey doesn't feel quite so arduous after all. :) 

So as a 'reward' (read; 'cruel and unwarranted punishment') I thought I'd treat you guys to a little performance for taking the time to stick with this blog so far. Don't tell me I'm good or I'll know you're a lying sycophant, and don't say I'm bad or I'll cry ... but comment anyway. Alright? Alright. 

(Today I read John Steinbeck's 'The Pearl', a book so short that it probably counts as a quantum event. It's Steinbeck, so the prose is peerless, the description sweeping and majestic, the characters downtrodden and hopeless. It tells the tragedy of Kino, a Mexican pearl-diver who is punished for the heinous crime of wanting his son to go to school after finding the eponymous ball of dried mucus. Don't get ideas above your station Mexicans. Go to school. Honestly, give them an inch and they'll take a yard.)
(Apparently it's ironic. Go figure)